VIVE LA DIF­FER­ENCE

PEU­GEOT PUTS A FRENCH SPIN ON THE SOFT-ROADER

Mercury (Hobart) - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - JOSHUA DOWL­ING

Vive la dif­fer­ence? More like can’t beat ’em, join ’em. French brand Peu­geot has re­turned to the boom­ing com­pact soft-roader seg­ment as one of the last brands to em­brace the phe­nom­e­non of high-rid­ing hatch­backs with off-road pre­ten­sions.

The French have un­til re­cently been anti-SUV but the global trend was too big to ig­nore.

Peu­geot’s pre­vi­ous com­pact “faux-wheel drive” was a toe-in-the-wa­ter ex­er­cise with Mit­subishi. The Peu­geot 4008 re­leased in 2012 and dis­con­tin­ued ear­lier this year was a Mit­subishi ASX with a new nose and tail. It was even built in a Ja­panese fac­tory.

It was a fast and af­ford­able way for Peu­geot to get into the SUV mar­ket. If SUVs turned out to be a pass­ing fad, then the French could make a hasty re­treat.

As it tran­spires, Peu­geot used the Mit­subishi as a stop­gap mea­sure while it de­signed its own com­pact SUV from the ground up.

The labours of the past four years or so pro­duced the 3008. There are four vari­ants: three grades of lux­ury with a 1.6-litre turbo and a flag­ship pow­ered by a 2.0-litre turbo diesel.

All have con­ven­tional six-speed au­to­matic trans­mis­sions — hal­lelu­jah — and are front­drive only.

Prices range from $41,198 drive-away to $54,200 drive-away but Peu­geot has low­ered the start­ing price to $39,990 drive-away on the cheap­est model only, as an in­tro­duc­tory of­fer.

In pro­file, it could be any of the two dozen or so com­pact SUVs on sale but from the front and rear Peu­geot makes a style state­ment, most no­tably from the claw marks in the head­lights to the ver­ti­cal bars in the LED tail-lights.

The cabin, though, will likely wow most buy­ers. The dig­i­tal wide-screen in­stru­ment dis­play was un­til re­cently only seen on top-end Audis — but the Peu­geot screen has more per­son­al­i­sa­tion.

The waist­line of the in­te­rior is a blend of soft-touch ma­te­ri­als and a car­pet-like fab­ric. The cabin con­trol switches look like metal tabs; they feel me­tal­lic and pre­cise but we sus­pect they’re plas­tic.

The touch­screen takes some prac­tice to nav­i­gate, and some con­trols are fid­dly while on the move, such as try­ing to quickly dim the dis­play screen or tune a ra­dio fre­quency.

There is a vol­ume knob, though it’s slightly hid­den from view.

Not ev­ery­one is a fan of Peu­geot’s small steer­ing wheel with its al­most rec­tan­gu­lar shape but it works well in the 3008 be­cause the driver is sit­ting higher and the in­stru­ments aren’t ob­scured from view, as they can be in Peu­geot hatch­backs with a sim­i­lar lay­out.

The suite of safety tech­nol­ogy is im­pres­sive but there are caveats.

Peu­geot de­serves praise for mak­ing speed limit sign recog­ni­tion and lane wan­der alert stan­dard on ev­ery model but the base model lacks au­to­matic emer­gency brak­ing (AEB) and other safety aids can’t be added even as op­tional ex­tras.

At this high start­ing price on a car pitch­ing it­self into the lux­ury mar­ket, AEB ought to be stan­dard and the other tech should be more widely avail­able.

The two dear­est mod­els come with lane­keep­ing as­sis­tance, radar cruise con­trol with au­to­matic stop-go in city traf­fic, blind spot de­tec­tion and auto-dip­ping high beams. This ex­tra safety kit is a $1500 op­tion on the sec­ond-dear­est model.

But rear cross traf­fic alert and rear AEB (avail­able on some ri­vals) are not avail­able at any price on the Peu­geot.

An elec­tric tail­gate is a $500 op­tion on all four, though some ri­vals have this stan­dard on cer­tain grades.

There’s no all-wheel drive but if you plan to drive down a gravel slope, there’s the $200 op­tion of a dial that will limit the car’s speed to a crawl us­ing the anti-lock brakes. Just don’t bank on hav­ing the grip to climb back up.

ON THE ROAD

Aus­tralian re­view­ers don’t rely much on the opin­ions of Euro­pean coun­ter­parts as our roads and con­di­tions are harsher. But drive on the Con­ti­nent’s cob­bles and pock­marked back­roads and you’ll see they can do bad pave­ment to match any coun­cil in Aus­tralia.

That’s why the 3008, the reign­ing Euro­pean Car of the Year, de­serves some re­spect.

Peu­geot has ar­rived last to the SUV class with its own ve­hi­cle but it has spent its time study­ing ri­vals and bench­mark­ing the best of them. No sur­prise, then, that the 3008 is im­pres­sive to drive.

The sweet spot is the base model on 17-inch wheels and sup­ple Miche­lin tyres, which pro­vide the ideal com­bi­na­tion of steer­ing pre­ci­sion and com­fort over bumps.

This is how Peu­geot built its rep­u­ta­tion, be­fore in­ex­pli­ca­bly los­ing its driv­ing dy­nam­ics mojo for about a decade.

The dearer mod­els come with 18 or 19-inch wheels. Cars equipped with the 18-inch wheel and tyre com­bi­na­tion were also sur­pris­ingly com­pli­ant on a brief back road test; we’re yet to test the 19s so will re­serve judg­ment.

Road noise was more sub­dued com­pared to Ja­panese or South Korean ri­vals and on par with, say, com­pa­ra­ble vari­ants of the Volkswagen Tiguan.

The other pleas­ant sur­prise was the per­for­mance from the 1.6-litre turbo. It may seem small but by class stan­dards it was near the pointy end of the field in terms of ac­cel­er­a­tion.

The six-speed au­to­matic makes the most of the engine’s avail­able grunt, un­like ri­vals whose twin-clutch or con­tin­u­ously vari­able trans­mis­sions seem to sap the power and re­tard the re­sponse.

Fuel foot­note: the Peu­geot engine lacks stop-start tech­nol­ogy. Aus­tralia gets a more pow­er­ful ver­sion of the 1.6-litre — it’s bet­ter suited to our poorer qual­ity fuel. That said, the 3008 still de­mands pre­mium un­leaded.

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